This summer, I had the opportunity to stand among the preserved and delicately excavated fossils of over 60 Ice Age mammoths. I interned at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, SD, a non-profit in-situ paleontological dig site in the heart of Southwestern South Dakota. A large structure was built over this paleontological wonder to preserve the remains and interpret them for today’s audiences. The building also contains a museum, lab, bone vault, educational classroom, and general offices.
Originally a sinkhole over 140,000 years ago, mammoths and other animals stopped for a drink and fell in or walked in to the water. The sides were steep, and the animals couldn’t get back out. Over time, the sinkhole filled with sediment and the bones of the animals were covered. When construction began for a housing development in 1974, the fossils of the mammoths were discovered and The Mammoth Site took shape. Today, 44 years later, the site is still just as active and productive as it was in the early stages.
For me, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I am interested in the relationship between museums and sites (both archaeological and paleontological), and the effects of recreation on each. The Mammoth Site is a wonderful example of all of these things. They combine an active site with a museum and research facility, while catering to over 100,000 visitors every year—most of them concentrated in the summer months. Situated within a two hour drive from some of the nation’s most popular tourist attractions, such as Mount Rushmore, Wall Drug, and Badlands National Park, the summer months attract up to 1,500 people a day. The Mammoth Site has figured out how to serve these visitors on a daily basis, while ensuring that the integrity of the site and research are not compromised.
Interning at The Mammoth Site this past summer gave me a first-hand look at what it takes to keep a facility such as this in operation. I gave tours to visitors, taught paleontology classes to grade school children, created a curriculum for traveling educational programs, helped with exhibit construction, and created supplementary materials to inform visitors about where our funding comes from and where it goes.
Working among the mammoth skeletons and living in the beautiful area where the site is located taught me many practical lessons about interpreting natural history- and it was fun! I made a new group of friends and colleagues, and for that I will be forever grateful.
Museum Science and Management Student Emily Caselman